Emily Peacock: Family Affair

Emily Peacock is an artist who lives and works in Houston, Texas. She received her M.F.A. at the University of Houston, with an emphasis in Photography and Digital Media. Her interests mainly lie in photographing and making short videos of her family. Peacock was a 2013-14 Lawndale Artist Studio Program artist in residence as well as a recipient of the Houston Arts Alliance Individual Artist Grant in 2016. She has exhibited her work throughout the United States, Vienna, Austria and the U.K. Peacock's work can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's permanent collection. 

(Interview conducted by Brenda Edith Franco)

BEF: Hey Emily! How are you?

EP: Hey Brenda! I'm good. Busy and tired. My son really enjoys not sleeping.

BEF: Tell me about where you’re from and what you’ve been up to?

EP: I am from Port Arthur, TX but now I live in Houston and I am currently teaching at Sam Houston State University. Lately, I have been taken care of my amazing son, Indiana. I have had few shows this past year and now I am working on a new body of work! I'm excited about where things are headed.

BEF: You collaborate and photograph your family quite often in your work, what is that process like? Are they used to it by now or do they resist?

EP: I began to focus on my family in graduate school. I was such a piece of shit when I was a teenager and I felt like I had finally matured and realized that I had been missing my family and wanted to get to know them as an adult. They were very supportive and that was the beginning of a decade of collaborations. Like most families, mine is crazy and full of drama but also lots of love. My family is always ready to help each other out. Especially my mother, she used to be my assistant and help me with my projects and be in my work as well. I think at first they were a little skeptical about what it was that I was doing but they agreed. Now it is just the norm. “Oh Emily wants to photography us again…” They get it and I think they enjoy it. It is fun, we laugh a lot and they get a kick out it. They love me but think I am also kind of crazy, but it works. I’m lucky to have such willing participates.

BEF: There are recurring themes of everyday objects and scenes often edging on eerie or creepy yet alluring in the way you stylize them. You’re series Unspectacular comes to mind as well as some of your more recent images found in the Soft Diet and User’s Guide series. What about these objects and moments inspires you to use and re-work them?

EP: The vernacular aspects of life, domestic surroundings, collections, and middle-class minutiae are all of interest to me. An ordinary object can hold a lot of meaning for one person, but not the next, and the same is true of a photograph. How does one take an ordinary object and give it meaning? I like thinking about this phenomenon, which has become a guiding principle for me. In the last four years, I have experienced divorce, the untimely passing of my mother, remarriage, and now the birth of my only child. The death of my mother has shaped my work and life more than any other experience I’ve had. Recently becoming a mother has only intensified the magnitude of her absence.

Navigating these experiences is often strangely humorous. The human condition and absurdity are both integral to the images I make. I REALLY enjoy the idea of making someone not only laugh but also cringe while viewing the same image. For example, the baby teeth are mine and they sit atop my baby photograph. It is the first photograph ever taken of me, which I think is amazing. The minute we are born we are photographed. My mother collected and kept all of her children’s teeth. Teeth are kind of like photographs in the sense that they represent a memory from a certain time and place. The fingernails I collected from my mother, sister and myself, I placed them on the of a photo of Thanksgiving, thinking about how holiday would be ruined after my mother would pass away. The bruise I got crowd surfing at a Screeching Weasel concert. It was so gnarly it had to be photographed. I like making photographs that show a visceral experience.

BEF: Your work is very personal and tends to be autobiographical. You made your filmmaking debut with the short-film, August, which follows a young woman going through a personal tragedy that isn’t ever quite revealed to the audience but it parallels your experience of going through the loss of your mother, who was one of your greatest collaborators. Do you ever fear that you’re sharing too much with your audience? Is there a level of mystery you seek for in your work?

EP: My work has been personal for close to a decade. At this point, I can't see myself making work any other way. Later maybe it might not be so obviously personal but I imagine it will always have some element of my life in there. For me, August (the film) really did occupy my mind and allowed me to look back at this crazy time that I just went through and organize it, write about it, cry about it and some cases relive it. I wanted to be very honest about it and that was a bit scary. I don’t really think about if I am sharing too much or not enough. It feels natural at this point. I always wanted to make a film and do stand up comedy and after my mother died I decided to do both. People often become more fearless after losing someone close. There is a level of ambiguity I tried to create in my work. I hope that the work can be read several ways.

BEF: There’s incredible strength in being able to bare it all and put your heart on the table for the world to see. What role does the subject of vulnerability and identity play in your images?

EP: Being vulnerable is very important to me, not only in my art but in my life. I like connecting with people and allowing myself to be vulnerable allows others around to be as well. I want genuine and authentic interactions and connections. All humans experience loss and pain, and I enjoy connecting with people through my art, knowing they may relate to it on a personal level because of this commonality. Someone once told me that the more specific you get with your work, the more universal it can be. We all look the same from a certain distance. Themes of identity are in the work but I don’t think about it too much. I am a wife, friend, daughter, sister, and mother so those things come out in the images. I hope I represent how complex each of those roles are. The images from Matter of Kinship depict the complex relationship between my sister and I. I had to move into her tiny apartment when I was going through a divorce and things were complicated. It was like we were kids again, fighting over things in the bathroom but also dealing with very adult issues like mental health and divorce.

BEF: Aside from your personal artistic practice, you are an avid curator and co-founder of the Lens Capsule and the Gimp Room. Can you talk about the importance of creating artist-run spaces and your role in showcasing young and up-and-coming talent?

EP: I have run two alternative art spaces. Two totally different art spaces. One is The Lens Capsule, that I started with Britt Thomas. The Lens Capsule is an art space in the back of a U-Haul truck that shows local up and coming photographers. We park at well-attended gallery openings during FotoFest to give them the most exposure possible. It is important to us to give a young artist who would not have the opportunity to show during FotoFest the exposure they deserve. We spend our own time and money on the project but we love it. it is important to give back to the community. It also an opportunity to stay in touch with young artists and know what people are making in your medium. I find it very enriching and the artists we show are always excited and people love climbing into the truck to look at art, it is different and people are interested.

The Lens Capsule

The other space (no longer in business) was The Gimp Room which I ran with my roommate Sally Glass. The Gimp Room was an art space located in the back of our house inside the studio that Sally and I shared. It is a small wood-paneled and carpeted room that looked like a gimp would live in! It is a strange space that only worked if someone made something specific for it. We wanted to give people an opportunity to do something outside of a white cube. Fun. Strange. Political. Noncommercial. All the artist were from outside of Houston, we were really interested in introducing them to the Houston art scene. We also had comedy shows where mostly female comics did standup. Justin Blandford worked with us on this. It is just about having a space to give people an opportunity to do what they do and experiment in a creating supportive environment. Sally and I are two female artists/curators/writers and we are both interested in our fellow female creative community and supporting them. The Gimp Room was about having a good time and seeing some strange but good work in a more intimate setting. It was our house. It was low key, people sipping on Lone Star in our backyard talking about art and life.

The Gimp Room

EP: Artist-run spaces are so important. Maybe the most important. There is something about working with other artists that is unique. You have freedom. Freedom to express and experiment. It isn't about making work to sell. It is about making honest work. Work that you want to or have to make and having a place to show it when no one knows who the fuck you are. Artist-run spaces are always weird and there is a do it yourself attitude that I love. There is an enthusiastic energy there, they aren't doing it for any other reason other than they love it and want to do it. No bullshit.

BEF: Hurricane Harvey recently hit Houston and unfortunately, the floods affected you and your family. Has that influenced your work, if at all?

EP: Yes, unfortunately, our house flooded. It was very stressful. We had to move out of the house for a month with our 3-month-old child. Luckily we had great friends and family help us through that time. I was getting ready for a solo show at Big Medium during that time and I didn’t have a studio so it did play a role in how I finished that work. The last piece I made was a video of a window with rain hitting and the sound of a breast pump, I didn’t consciously think about the connection but I can see it now.

Home Remedies for Cabin Fever at Big Medium, 2017

BEF: Do you have any projects or shows that you’re currently working on?

EP: Yes! I am working on a new body of work! I have a solo show at Jonathon Hopson Gallery (where I am represented) in the Spring of 2019 and I have my first museum solo show at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Fall of 2019 to 2020. Right now I am beginning a series of self-portraits inspired by my experiences with postpartum depression and anxiety.

BEF: Thank you so much, Emily!

EP: NO THANK YOU! Let's hang soon Brenda! I miss you.